When I met my hero

Just a couple of days ago, I met with Praveen Gedam, a medical doctor, who has chosen to nurse more than just diseases. Dr. Praveen Gedam, an IAS officer of 2002 batch is Maharashtra Government’s famous troubleshooter with an interesting history. Few years ago, a businessman donated Rs. 1500 crores to the Vitthal temple of Pandharpur on the condition that the government must come up with a rock-solid plan for development of Pandharpur, where every penny is accounted for. The way he was assured of transparency and efficiency was: Dr. Gedam was transferred to the district as the collector!

It was Dr. Gedam’s bulletproof paperwork and intolerance of corruption that saw powerful Maharashtra politicians behind bars for Gharkul Housing Scam involving 216 crore rupees. Usually, when most of the scams are exposed, and the accused escape through some loophole or the other. Here was an example, a politician, whose party was in power, couldn’t avoid jail because he was so thoroughly exposed with impeccably detailed evidence and paperwork.

You know how exams used to be held at and around my place? Students didn’t study for exams, they copied. There was an elaborate system in place for copying. Invigilators would turn a blind eye, peons would carry printed answers to the candidates. “Anti-copy squad” was a joke. Exam centers would know beforehand that the squad is going to visit the center, just before the visit of the squad, chits, notes, and whole books would be collected from the copying students in sackfuls and thrown away, making the center ‘clean’. Boy! How I hated it! When Dr. Gedam came to my district as the District Collector, he put an end to it. He showed that all it takes to do away with most of the filth in our society is one strong-willed officer!

When I was a kid, a very small kid, I used to say “I want to become a scientist when I grow up”. When I grew up a slight bit more, it changed to “I want to become an IAS officer!”. Dr. Gedam made me change that to “I want to become an IAS officer like Dr. Praveen Gedam!”. That hasn’t changed till date.

I had a lot of questions about IAS as a career option. Friends and relatives alike have told me that I shouldn’t be a starry eyed kid gung-ho about IAS. I should actually try to find the ground truth. I should try to find out how it is like to be an IAS officer for real, because they feared it is something I won’t actually like. Who better to ask these questions to than Dr. Gedam himself! And that’s how, on a fine Saturday morning, a government holiday, I ended up in his office, 350 km away from my home.

Dr. Gedam is currently the municipal commissioner of Nashik municipal corporation. You know why he’s there? Because no one could better manage and organize the Kumbh Mela than him!

I entered his office. He was busy examining a file. “Let me in introduce myself, my name is Sujeet, just graduated last year from IIT Madras with a B.Tech in Computer Science, right now I’m studying for a masters’ degree at Stanford.” He shut the file, looked up, said “Oh! You are that guy! You must be crazy to think of IAS, given your background.”

Frankly, that came as a bombshell. My heart did a somersault, only to be relieved when he said “Just kidding! Take a seat.”

He assumed that I was there to ask him for tips and guidance regarding the Civil Services Exam, arguably one of the toughest exams in the world. He dove right into it, hardly giving me time to set context. I managed to interject, “Sir, I’m confident that I’ll get through the civil services exams, in four, if not three attempts. I think it is inefficient use of your time to talk about the exam preparation details which I could easily find online.” He must have thought what an arrogant prick I was. Thankfully he didn’t show it. With a smile, he signaled me to ask away my questions.

I started off, “Sir, I’ve heard people say all sorts of things. Some say that a government job, even IAS is bound to be monotonous and boring. Some say there’s no avenue for impact, and officers are just puppets in politicians’ hands. I’ve also heard that every day brings new challenges and novel problems to solve, and there’s nothing as exciting. You know it first-hand, right?”

He was quick to answer, “Yes, those who make claims of boringness and monotonicity have no clue what the job involves. Let me add one more thing: as a doctor, you will be able to impact and touch upon people’s lives in health related dimensions. As an engineer, say, at Whatsapp, you’ll impact how people communicate. As an IAS officer, there’s hardly an avenue of people’s lives that you won’t be able to impact and improve. There are only two career choices which give you the opportunity to impact so many lives in such a multidimensional way: politics and IAS.”

Bingo! It almost felt as if he was echoing my thoughts!

He went on, “I’m guessing that what really appeals to you is impact that feels real, which you can perceive and observe yourself, and that too, quickly. Is that why you are considering IAS?”

Boy, was he a mindreader!

“You know what I don’t like? I don’t like the fact that you came here and met me. I don’t like my reputation as a ‘clean officer’ as a ‘skilled administrator and troubleshooter’. Governance and administration should be invisible. When people don’t remember their collector for making exams copy-free because there was no copying in the first place — that’s where we should be going!”

That was a relief as well as an interesting insight. I asked further, “So, I’m not totally and unreasonably starry-eyed then! What are the things you would call red flags for an aspiring IAS officer? You know, like ‘if you are such and such kind of a person, IAS is definitely not your cup of tea’.”

He took a moment to think. “Hmm… You know, there are these people — the sentimental types. They better stay away from IAS. Let me give you a hypothetical example. There’s this subordinate of yours, you’ve seen him struggle, you feel like you should help him whenever you can, in whichever way possible. You do that. And one fine day, you find out that the bogus public-interest litigation which has caused you so much of trouble and unnecessary headache was orchestrated and managed by this guy. You should be the kind of guy who says “to hell with him” and not “how could he do this to me after all I did for him”. There is a circle of trust around an honest IAS officer — it is about one foot in diameter.”

He did manage a smile after furnishing this hypothetical example. He continued to talk about another very important aspect — communication.

“Sujeet, everyone is intelligent, brilliant even. But different people are “differently intelligent”. If you are not comfortable in working in an environment where everyone around is differently intelligent than you, IAS isn’t for you. Let me give you an example of communication problems that arise out of this. I told an officer under me to print a table, one column for a day of the week. He asked for specifics. I drew on paper, a table with Sunday, Monday, Tuesday as column headings and so on. He came back with a printout, it had four columns: “Sunday”, “Monday”, “Tuesday”, and “so on…”! Now, if you are the kind who gets angry over these sort of things, sorry, IAS isn’t for you.”

“Sir, can I ask you something?”

“Yes, you are asking questions! What’s this something?”

“Does it feel lonely?”

“Yes, it does. Sometimes, very lonely.

I had hoped that talking to him would make me more determined and enthusiastic about IAS, it wasn’t exactly turning out that way. Ah, well.

Now, I was a bit hesitant, “I sometimes find myself worried and concerned about children’s future, their education… what with a job involving frequent transfers and all…”

“Hahaha! What age are you, again?”

The boss of the 6000 strong organization couldn’t suppress his laugh.

Assuringly, he added, “Seriously though, you don’t have to worry. Things work out all right.”

I was wondering how his day-to-day work was like. “I was hoping I would get a glimpse into the kind of work you do, the challenges you face…”

“Sure, sit around a bit.”

He told the peon to let the next person in. She was a reporter, asking him for his plans as the Kumbh Mela was approaching. In his interview, he outlined the plans, answered her questions, addressed her concerns. He turned to me again as she left.

“How many times you see dirty, garbage ridden roads with potholes and illegal encroachments and feel that someone should change it? Feel that if only you could do something about it? Well, I actually get do something about it! And the satisfaction? Immeasurable. You just heard my plans for cleaning up the Nashik roads and getting rid of the encroachments, so that there’s no stampede, there’s enough space for processions and the likes. The power to do something about “this shouldn’t be this way” — it matters!”

He opened up a presentation. It had a graph of revenue from sand business of Solapur, where he was a few months ago before Nashik needed him more. In one year, the revenue had gone up from 17 crore rupees to 78 crore rupees! He explained...

“When you don’t have any vested interests, such massive changes too can be brought about very easily. There were a lot of loopholes in the process of revenue collection. We worked hard, secretly built software to computerize most of the process. The software plugged most of the leaks. One day, suddenly, we announced and immediately implemented the new computerized process throughout the Solapur district. Results are in front of you! There are a lot of people who used to siphon money off the process. Had they known about the plans to computerize the system, they would’ve created a lot of obstacles. The idea is to drop a bulletproof safe-box onto these people, suddenly. Bam! A bolt out of the blue! If you start constructing cages around them, they would break free before you know it.

“You learn a lot of things too. We wanted to bring biometric attendance tracking system to various government offices. The resistance we faced was something we never expected. There were complaints of us spending taxpayers’ money on these ‘gadgets’ unnecessarily as there was ‘clearly no attendance problem at all’. More dangerous than these frontal attacks were their guerrilla tactics. They scratched the fingerprint scanners with their nails, others put Fevi-kwik on the scanner, rendering it useless. At places, they weren’t even this surreptitious, the machines were smashed into pieces by ‘unknown pranksters’ overnight. Next time around, along with machines, we installed CCTV cameras. We could’ve saved quite some money had we anticipated the problem and installed the cameras first time around itself.”

“I see… it is really very interesting and exciting!” Now I asked something I was really concerned about: “How about work-life balance?”

After another laugh, he composed his answer.

“When your work is immensely satisfying, challenging, and interesting, I wonder who would differentiate between ‘work’ and ‘life’! You’ve been in silicon valley. Do you think those startup founders have the so-called ‘work-life balance’? These are people driven by a goal, an unending passion, a strong drive, and an unmistakeable sense of purpose. The only difference is that they have their multi-million dollar exit strategies, we don’t. Well, if you want a comfortable eight-hour job, paid vacations, and what they call a ‘peaceful life’, just like startups, even IAS isn’t for you. One of those ‘red flags’ of yours, you see…” That was an interesting way of putting what I feared anyway!

“What about political interference?”

“There’s a trick to this. Many officers, in their weaker moments, fall prey to temptations. One mistake is all it takes. Politicians know the entire records of officers and their ‘adventures’. These act as leverage against you, and you are forced to do more and more of these ‘adventures’. The key is to never give them the chance. When there’s no material that can be used to blackmail you, no one dares to pressurize you. Politicians at the highest level — by that, I mean, Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister — are sensible and intelligent people. And they support you. When it is clear that you can not be exploited, they stop bothering you. I’ve had so many local and not-so-low-level politicians approach me with their illegal work. I refuse, they vow to bring pressure on me from “high above”. That pressure never materializes! People “high above” know whom to pressurize and whom to not.”

“Have there been any life-threatening instances?”

“I see what you are concerned about. Fortunately, these incidents are way rarer than what you fear. I haven’t faced any yet and the likelihood is minuscule too. This shouldn’t be a ‘red flag’, you know! “If you care about your life, don’t come to IAS” haha!”

“Holidays?”

“When your work is more interesting and thrilling than reading a novel comfortably in your bed, would you want holidays? You know that today’s supposed to be a government holiday, right? Here I’m, talking to you, in my office!”

I was also curious about IAS officers going on to continue education in Harvard, Cambridge and the likes. “I’ve heard that there are lot of learning opportunities… I mean, learning in the traditional sense…”

“Yes, there are. Though it is tough to find time. I haven’t yet gone on a leave to learn / get a degree as such, so I’m not the right person to talk about those. But yeah, I did start learning law (an LLB degree) when I was an officer in Pune. I’ll have a law degree one day or another. So, there you go: a medical doctor gets to learn law and be a lawyer!”

“Wow! That’s great. It was so nice of you to find time to talk to me, it means a lot to me. One last thing, can I get a picture with you?”

Accustomed to being a celebrity, this wasn’t new to him. Tired from a busy week, he still obliged!

Then he called his head of IT department and told him to show me some of the latest and exciting projects they’ve been working on. The projects were very impressive indeed, I must add. Once his ‘bolt out of the blue’ strikes, I’ll hopefully be able to talk about those projects on my blog here…

There are officers about whom you feel “in spite of these people, India works.” Then you see people like Dr. Gedam, and you admit “because of these people, India works.

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